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'Curse Of The Shuttlecocks' Haunts Kansas City's Teams


The Kansas City Royals, down a game in the World Series, haven't won a title in 29 years. Now, teams that go decades without winning a World Series talk about curses. The Red Sox used to talk of one. The Chicago Cubs still do, and it turns out the The Royals do as well. From Kansas City, NPR's Tom Goldman explains the curse of the shuttlecocks.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It was a gorgeous, sunny day in Kansas City yesterday and Julian Zugazagoitia's eyes were sparkling as he led an impromptu tour on the grounds of his art museum, the Nelson Atkins. He's executive director. We gazed out at the lush south lawn and its startling landmarks, two 19-foot tall badminton shuttlecocks - you know, birdies

JULIAN ZUGAZAGOITIA: On the other side of the building - on the north side we have other shuttlecocks. So he invented this lawn as an incredible court of which the building becomes the net. And that's like a giant game of badminton.

GOLDMAN: Swedish-born popular artist Claes Oldenburg installed the aluminum and reinforced plastic shuttlecocks in 1994. His creation, in part, was a tribute to Kansas City's rich sports tradition. Zugazagoitia says there was controversy at first.

ZUGAZAGOITIA: Because people at that time were still fighting the idea popular art.

GOLDMAN: But as that controversy receded, talk of a curse began. Sports fans noted before 1994, baseball's Royals and the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs enjoyed winning seasons and playoff success - after '94, disappointment. In those KC sports fans turned their lonely eyes to shuttlecocks. This year, a small group started a petition campaign to remove the giant birdies. It went nowhere says Nelson Atkins media relations manager Kathleen Leighton.

KATHLEEN LEIGHTON: I think when people are disappointed, they're looking for someone to take the disappointment out on, and I think the shuttlecocks are benign. And they're an easy target 'cause they're not going to fight back.

GOLDMAN: And, as Leighton points out, The Royals and their playoff success - eight straight wins to open this postseason - was all the fight the poor shuttlecocks needed.

LEIGHTON: So actually, there is no curse anymore.

GOLDMAN: Kathleen, are you sure about that?


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The pitch - Pence swings and he drives one into deep center. Cain is going back. He turns, he looks up, it's gone.

GOLDMAN: Last night's first-inning home run by Hunter Pence, as heard on San Francisco's KNBR radio, started what ended up being a 7 to 1 Giants drubbing of The Royals in game one. It was the kind of loss that might - might stir up thoughts of reborn curses, if you're weak - not like Kansas City fan John Stoner who, with a buddy, wore to the game matching spandex one-piece bodysuits with a picture of a cat on the front. Don't ask - 7 to 1 didn't faze Stoner, and it certainly didn't rekindle bad thoughts about shuttlecocks.

JOHN STONER: Those are a city treasure. I didn't want to be mad at them. I've been mad at them for a while 'cause we haven't won since they've been put in. And now they're off the hook.

GOLDMAN: So much so that the art museum's Zugazagoitia says when The Royals win the World Series, Kansas City fans are invited to celebrate on what he calls the museum's sacred grounds, amidst the shuttlecocks. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.